It was a very long drive from the Hanoi airport to our little hotel in the Old Quarter. We are staying at the Duc Thai Hotel on Hang Ga street in the old section of Hanoi. This is a step-down from the hotels where we stayed in both Saigon and Hue, but it is adequate for the few nights we will be in Hanoi. The street noise is very noticeable but I think that would be the case in this city regardless of which hotel we were in. These people cannot drive without constantly honking their horns on both cars and motorcycles.
Our immediate impressions of Hanoi is that it is very dirty; there are many more old-fashioned bicycles than anywhere else we have see in Vietnam; the city is much less prosperous than Ho Chi Minh City; and the people of Hanoi must work much harder to attain a lower standard of living than in Ho Chi Minh City. This is surprising to us because Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam today. Here are a few views from our hotel window. One innovative thing new to us were the glass "domes" on top of some of the buildings with a ventilation fan on top. What a simple idea that it is funny that the South and Central Americans have not come up with something similar. The glass allows the sun to heat the air inside, and as heat rises, this causes the ventilation fan to turn, creating air flow up from the building below. Simply a sun powered ventilation fan. What a simple clever idea.
We had skipped lunch and were ready for an early dinner soon after arrival. The hotel clerk recommended a restaurant for Pho in the Hanoi style which was only about 6 blocks away. We found it with no problem and walked in. An older woman motioned us to go the very narrow stairs to the upper level. We walked into a room full of simple tables filled with local people who all turned to stare at us....we were the only non-Vietnamese people in the place so were a curiousity. The woman running this establishment motioned for us to sit at a table and handed us a card printed in English that stated: "We serve only one dish in our restaurant. We serve grilled fish for 120,000 dong." I tried to explain that we wanted Pho.
This will sound racist, but is what happened. Next thing we know this woman ladles up 4 saucers of cooked vermicelli rice noodles and places them on our table along with 4 small bowls and 4 sets of chopsticks. Whoops....wait a minute....we are only a party of 2 and we want to eat Pho. She repeats "four" only she says it like Eddie Murphy and his Ho on Saturday Night Live. No, no, no. We are not 'fo'--- we are only two people who want to eat Pho. She got the message and removed the other 2 settings from our table.
Soon another woman delivered what looked like a clay pot filled with burning charcoal wood pieces with a skillet sizzling on top. She placed this cooking skillet on a plate in the center of our table. The skillet contained a small amount of oil and tiny pieces of chicken. T he woman added a plate of fresh green leafy vegetables and stirred with chopsticks and then walked away. We watched the other patrons stirring their skillets. When the skillet contents looked cooked, they would use their chopsticks to pick up some of the green veggies and chicken pieces and put over the noodles in their small bowls. Then they would use chopsticks to pick up some fresh cilantro and tiny Thai basil leaves from another saucer and dip those into a clear liquid sauce in a small bowl and then place these on top of the noodles, chicken and veggies. Then stir it all thoroughly until the noodles were no longer sticky. Top with chopped peanuts and enjoy. Eating slippery noodles with chopsticks turned out to be easier than we had imagined. The combination of the various ingredients is tasty.
We saw people eating Pho in Saigon and Hue and it appeared to be more like a noodle soup; Pho in Hanoi apparently is all noodles and veggies with tiny bits of fried chicken, but no broth. It tastes good and we scarfed it down. However, we were not happy with the price of 260,000 dong for this simple meal. That is more than 4 times the price of Pho at any restaurant we visited in Hue or Saigon. I figured this place must be run by the aunt or mother of the hotel clerk who sent us here. Sort of pissed Bill off because it felt like a rip-off, but I figured it didn't matter and we had at last finally eaten Pho. After all, 260,000 dong is only about $12 USD so it wasn't all that much of a rip-off.
Today we walked quite a bit through the Old Quarter. Saw lots of different things and too many to list them all. The streets and shops are amazing and exactly what one might imagine in an ancient Asian city. (Hanoi will be have its 1,000 year birthday celebration in October of this year.) The shopkeepers use the entire sidewalks in front of their shops and place their goods and racks all the way out to the curb. So it is impossible to walk on the sidewalks and people are forced to walk in the streets with the thousands of motorcycles. Where the shops are not utilizing the sidewalks then the motorcycles are using the sidewalks for parking space. Either way, on many streets it is impossible to use the sidewalks and one must walk in the busy street traffic.
There were shops for virtually anything you can think of. Several shops had hundreds of used rebuilt pumps of all kinds. A couple of places were manually rewinding motors on pumps and other motors. There was just everything imaginable. Later, on the cruise of Ha'Long Bay, another American tourist said she had seen dog meat being sold by the sidewalk meat vendors. We walked by quite a few sidewalk meat vendors in Hanoi but we never saw any dog for sale. This photo of the train track shows hundreds of homes opening onto the tracks. You can see how close these dwellings are to the tracks. There are actively used train tracks. Can you imagine living that close as trains go rumbling by!
Eventually we found the Army Museum. It was closed during the lunch hour so we went to sit in the park across the street to wait until it reopened. And that is where we found a statue of Lenin. That is certainly something that I never thought to see. Lenin is considered a very bad person in the USA. He is revered here in Vietnam.
The Army Museum was probably more interesting to Bill than to me. I did not know what most of those items of military equipment were. Most of the signs were in Vietnamese, French and English. Bill kept reminding me that since the US walked away from this war then the Vietnamese have the right to say whatever they want about that war. Being reminded of this fact did not make it any easier for me to accept the blatantly one-sided and usually incorrect things that were written. One 'fact' was that it was an American war of aggression from 1954. One 'fact' that seems wrong is that the North Vietnamese claim to have shot down more than 33,000 American and South Vietnamese aircraft. That sounds like an awfully high number. (We checked later and learned that the actual number was something like 2,250 planes lost and that 543 of those were lost due to operational failures rather than being shot down.) The helmet shown here perfectly exemplifies the propaganda of this museum. The plaque said this helmet was proof that the French were unable to resist the overwhelmingly superior resistance army of the Vietnamese. Supposedly the helmet was worn by a French soldier who was gunned down in a foxhole. Look closely and you will see that at least 80% of the holes in this helmet have been made from the inside and were not caused by shells or fragments hitting the unfortunate soldier who was wearing it. There was a very large 'sculpture' made from various scraps of airplanes and pieces of artillery. It did not appear artistic. There were numerous SAMS, a la Jane Fonda in the famous photograph of her straddling one.
After a couple of hours walking around this museum and reading the plaques, we had enough and we left. Oh, almost forgot to mention the pricing of tickets to the Army Museum. They asked 20,000 dong (about $1.10 USD) per person plus 20,000 dong for each camera. First time I've seen tickets required for cameras. I held my camera in plain view when we purchased the tickets and Bill handed over a 100,000 dong bill. But they really did not charge for the camera and returned 60,000 dong change to him. Still, it was odd.
Walking the streets and looking at all the narrow alleyways and seeing how the people live is much more interesting than old military equipment and propaganda. The few Vietnamese we talked with in Hue had told us that most Vietnamese today don't care anything about politics; they only care about improving their economy and improving the quality of life in their country. This is scary to me because history has shown that when the citizens of a country don't pay attention to those in charge of their government, bad things can happen and freedoms can be lost.
None of the usual tourist attractions appealed to us....like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, or the Ho Chi Minh Literature building, or the Ho Chi Minh etc, etc, etc. So rather than doing a regular city tour we just walked around on our own. The people and the city were so interesting. Bill found a tiny watch repair shop and bought a new watch band for his everyday watch. The family who operated the shop lived right there in the shop. This appeared to be fairly common throughout Hanoi.
It was a great day. For dinner we were to a new place on the corner from our hotel. It is called Com Ga. Com means rice and Ga means chicken. Oh boy! Bill gets his favorite meal of chicken and rice. Although there were about 10 different kinds of chicken and rice and we didn't recognize any of the names. We each ordered a different one and split the two. A very good dinner for about one-third the price of last night's Pho. Across the street was a bank in a narrow 4-storey building with doors opening onto the sidewalk. The customers would arrive on their motorcycles and bring their motorcycles into the building. The first level was apparently the 'parking garage' even though it looked like a normal first floor of any building.
One of the videos below illustrates how one crosses a street in Vietnam cities. The guide books provide instructions. You are supposed to just step out in the street and start walking without looking at the traffic and without changing your pace. The motorcycle drivers will avoid hitting you. But if you change your pace and try to wait for them to pass, you probably will get hit because they don't know what you are doing. So one simply steps into the busy street on blind faith alone. Somehow it works for them. Do this in Houston traffic and you will be dead!
Early tomorrow morning we head to the Ha'Long Bay for a 3-day cruise with http://www.indochinasails.com/en/halong-bay.html
Don't know which boat we will be on. Hope it is a nice one and also hope the weather gets better. It has been very cloudy and dreary since our arrival in Hanoi.